Friday, November 28, 2014

Boxing history—Yankee Sullivan v. John Morrissey, Part V, Boston Corners, NY, the venue

             When Yankee Sullivan fought John Morrissey for the unofficial American Boxing Championship and a $2,000 prize (about $62,000 in today’s money) on October 12, 1853, there was no specific statute that banned boxing or prizefighting in New York State. Such a prohibition would not be added to the law books until March 7, 1859. Nevertheless, law enforcement officials prosecuted fighters and those who aided and abetted prizefights by using common law doctrine, a body of law which had been originally formulated and administered in England when New York was an English colony.[1]

            Police arrested people involved with prizefighting events in New York State and charged them with such common law crimes as: unlawful assembly (“a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace . . . exciting terror, alarm and consternation in the neighborhood”); affray (“fighting of two or more persons in some public place, to the terror of citizens”); and riot (“a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons . . . to the terror of the people, whether the act intended is lawful or unlawful”). Additional common law crimes that were used to prosecute those involved with prizefighting included breach of the peace, assault and battery, and rout (a crime that fell somewhere between unlawful assembly and riot).[2]
            During Yankee Sullivan’s trial in 1842 for his role in the Lilly-McCoy fight (see Part III), New York Justice Charles Ruggles explained why state legal officials thought prizefighting was so despicable. He said, “A prizefight brings together . . . the gamblers, and the bullies, and the pickpockets, and the thieves, and the burglars . . . a large assemblage of the idle, disorderly, vicious, dissolute people—the people who live by violence—the people who live by crime.”[3]
            Because of these legal facts of life, Yankee Sullivan and John Morrissey had to be very careful about where they would stage their fight. According to the “Articles of Agreement” for the fight which they signed on September 1, 1853, they agreed to fight between 11 am and 2 pm on October 12, 1853. They also agreed to chose a man who would have the authority to decide where the fight would be held, and a coin toss would determine which site would be chosen. Morrissey’s man won the coin toss and he selected Boston Corners, NY to be the location for the fight.[4]
            Boston Corners was about 100 miles north of New York City, on the New York and Harlem Railroad line, currently the Metro-North Harlem line. Today, it terminates at Wassaic, NY, about 20 miles south of Boston Corners.

            Morrissey’s man chose a good place for a prizefight. Originally located in the Town of Mount Washington, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, Boston Corners was entirely isolated from county law enforcement officials. The Taconic Mountains extended down the eastern border of Boston Corners and formed an almost impassible barrier which cut off the community from the nearest state and local government authority which was located on the other side of the mountains in Mount Washington and Great Barrington. Because of this geography, Boston Corners had become the resort of fugitives from justice and criminals of all stripes who defied the law and carried on their illegal businesses with impunity.[5]

Taconic Mountains in Boston Corners, NY

             In December 1848, the law-abiding inhabitants of Boston Corners petitioned Massachusetts to be annexed to New York State where law enforcement officials were more accessible.[6] On May 14, 1853, Massachusetts ceded the area to New York but the cession would not take legal effect until three more legal events occurred: (1) New York had to accept jurisdiction over Boston Corners; (2) Congress had to consent to the cession and annexation; and (3) the Massachusetts governor had to issue a proclamation declaring Boston Corners to be part of New York.[7]

            In the fall of 1853, when the final arrangements were being made for the Sullivan-Morrissey fight to be held in Boston Corners, the area was in legal limbo between the jurisdictions of New York and Massachusetts. On July 21, 1853, New York had accepted jurisdiction over Boston Corners but Congress had not given its consent (it would not do so until about a year and a half later, on January 3, 1855) and the Massachusetts governor had not proclaimed Boston Corners to be part of New York (he would not do so until January 11, 1855).[8]
            On April 13, 1857, New York would annex the area to the Town of Ancram in Columbia County.[9]

Town of Ancram, NY
            Today, a sign marks the site of the abandoned brickyard in Boston Corners where the Sullivan-Morrissey fight was held. The sign is located off State Route 22 on Under Mountain Road, south of the Undermountain Golf Course, and north of the line between Columbia and Dutchess Counties, and Altenburg Road.

As originally erected

As partially corrected

            The sign makers made two major errors on the sign, only one of which has been corrected. When erected in 1959, the sign incorrectly stated that the fight had been held in 1883. Sometime in the last few years, someone corrected the sign by changing an “8” to a “5” and it now displays the correct year, 1853. However, the sign continues to display the incorrect day of the fight. The sign says the fight was held on October 5 when in fact it was held on October 12.
            Next, Part VI, the rules for the fight, the rules of the London Prize Ring.

[1] Orbach, Barak Y., “Prizefighting and the Birth of Movie Censorship,” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 21, no. 2 (2009): 262, 267.
[2] Francis Wharton, A Treatise of the Criminal Law of the United States (Philadelphia: Kay & Brother, 1861), 400; Orbach, Barak Y., “Prizefighting and the Birth of Movie Censorship,” 262.
[3] Orbach, Barak Y., “Prizefighting and the Birth of Movie Censorship,” 263–264.
[4] Life and Battles of Yankee Sullivan (Philadelphia: A. Winch, 1854), 65.
[5] John Homer French, Gazetteer of the State of New York (Syracuse, NY: B. Pearsall Smith, 1860), 242–243. n.7.
[6] Ibid., 242–243.
[7] Report of the Regents of the University on the Boundaries of the State of New York (Albany, NY: Jerome B. Parmeter, 1878), 219–220.
[8] Ibid., 219–220, 223.
[9] French, Gazetteer of the State of New York, 242–243, n.7.

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